Roundtable: Fixing the Sky

In 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog proclaimed “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  Amidst the environmental crisis of the 1960s, the publication’s founder Stewart Brand wanted to provide access to tools, and he was remarkably friendly to technological solutions.  His kind of environmentalism drew from human ingenuity and achievement, and unlike many of the commentators of that era, he was optimistic about a future in human hands.  In more recent years, Brand and others have argued forcefully in favor of “geoengineering.”  If the planet is changing for the worst, they maintain, let’s use our know-how to make it better.[1]

If climate change mitigation through political agreement has no hope of succeeding, does tinkering with the climate make sense?  In May 2011, the National Research Council (of the U.S.’s National Academies) published the final part of its report, America’s Climate Choices.  The report called for more research on ways to manage not only greenhouse gases but also the solar radiation reaching the earth.  And yet despite the call for research, the report unequivocally described any near-term attempts to manipulate the earth as “imprudent,” and any long-term planning based upon them as “unwise.”[2]

After reading James Rodger Fleming’s Fixing the Sky, it is clear that such ideas have tempted scientists and natural philosophers for centuries and more.  In his telling, some of these folks come across as charlatans, others as well-meaning dreamers, and very few as wise.  Fleming is best known for his work in the history of meteorology, including Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 2005) and Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Johns Hopkins, 2000).  He also is the biographer of Guy Stewart Callendar, one of the key figures in the history of the science of global warming.[3] Fleming’s skepticism toward weather and climate control is evident throughout Fixing the Sky, and it is hard to come away from it with anything but a jaded view of the modern era’s penchant for problem-solving on a gargantuan scale.

I asked Ted Steinberg to comment upon Fixing the Sky because of his close familiarity with many of the weather engineers in Fleming’s book, particularly the cloud seeders.  But also, Steinberg already has raised tough questions about the line between natural and human-induced change.  In Acts of God, Steinberg pointed out the numerous ways in which natural disasters are linked to human activities, and he showed that people still cling to the belief that most calamities are accidental.  Such a view places disasters “outside the moral compass of our culture,” he writes, constraining our sense of responsibility.[4]

R. S. Deese shares with Fleming the notion that controversies about expertise and the environment often turn on the notion of hubris.  On the one hand, scientists have faith in their ability to manage the world.  On the other hand rests a deep and abiding skepticism—and a suspicion that scientists are changing the world in harmful ways.  Deese has explored this tension through two brothers, both quite famous within their own domains: Julian Huxley, the first director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and Aldous Huxley, renowned for his critique of a society driven by scientific expertise in Brave New World.[5]

Matthew Farish’s recent book, The Contours of America’s Cold War, takes the notion of control to its extreme, showing the extent of the militarization of academic disciplines in the United States after World War II.[6] In Farish’s telling, the ever-increasing spatial knowledge of the globe served the interests of the state, leading to a transformation of the social sciences. Reading Farish alongside Fleming, it is easy to see why geographers and weather “fixers” alike rarely lacked military funding.

Paul Edwards has written extensively about notions of control in the era after World War II.  In The Closed World, he traced the discourse of command and control from the electronic battlefield of Vietnam to the visions of a vengeful Skynet in the Terminator films.  More recently, he has extended this work into the realm of climate modeling, to show how the science of global warming has evolved based on an extraordinarily broad range of data only comprehensible through computer analyses.[7]

I offer my thanks to James Rodger Fleming and all the commentators, who have provided their thoughts with an eye toward increasing scholarly dialogue.  As an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, free of charge.  This particular subject is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.  We will revisit ways to “fix” the sky again and again, as the climate evolves under our influence.

Read the whole roundtable as pdf here or visit H-Environment.

[1] Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011); Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary (New York: Penguin, 2010).

[2] National Research Council, America’s Climate Choices (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011), 53.

[3] James Rodger Fleming, The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964) (American Meteorological Society, 2009).

[4] Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: the Unnatural History of Natural Disaster (New York: Oxford, 2000), xix.

[5] R. S. Deese, “The New Ecology of Power: Julian and Aldous Huxley in the Cold War Era,” in J. R. McNeill and Corinna Unger, eds., Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Cambridge, 2010), 279-300.

[6] Matthew Farish, The Contours of America’s Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[7] Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997); Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

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